On Tuesday, American Oversight sued the Office of South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and the state’s Department of Labor and Regulation (DLR) for failing to release public records about expenses related to Noem’s activities while in office.
The lawsuit seeks information related to Noem’s travel expenses, including five out-of-state taxpayer-funded trips. The suit also seeks records of any legal costs incurred by taxpayers from the alleged forced retirement of the director of South Dakota’s Appraiser Certification Program following Noem’s intervention in her daughter’s application for a state appraiser license.
In May, American Oversight submitted a records request to the Office of the Governor seeking records of costs associated with five trips taken by Noem early in 2022, including several with overtly partisan destinations, such as a Conservative Political Action Conference event in Florida and a state Republican Party convention in New York.
Under South Dakota’s Sunshine Law, the public has a right to access government records, including “any state … expenditure involving public funds.” While the law contains a narrow exception for sensitive security information, the request submitted by American Oversight specifically excluded records of “costs related to Governor Noem’s security associated with this travel.” But in June, the governor’s office refused to release any expense records at all, claiming that allowing the public to see any details of Noem’s travel spending would create a security risk, without explaining why it wasn’t able to redact only specific information that might reasonably be described as security-related. American Oversight followed up later that month with a formal request, which was again denied.
Notably, American Oversight has repeatedly obtained and published government records related to travel expenses — including those of high-level federal officials. “Even the Secret Service releases travel costs for the president,” said American Oversight Executive Director Heather Sawyer, “but instead of complying with the law, the governor’s office is trying to hide all of its travel spending behind vague arguments about ‘security,’ leaving American Oversight no choice but to go to court to uphold transparency in South Dakota.”
American Oversight is also seeking information from DLR about the legal costs of defending against an age-discrimination complaint filed by former employee Sherry Bren. Bren testified in December 2021 that she felt pressured by Noem and other officials to reverse the denial of an application for a real estate appraiser’s license for Noem’s daughter. Bren, who claimed that the agency forced her to retire from her role, later received a $200,000 settlement from the Noem administration.
The state’s government accountability board determined in August 2022 that Noem may have “engaged in misconduct” when she intervened in her daughter’s license application process, and documents released in September revealed that the governor had asked for the complaint against her to be dismissed.
In December 2021, American Oversight filed a request with DLR seeking records related to Bren’s alleged forced retirement, but the department has failed to acknowledge the request. In August, we followed up with a written request to DLR but have not yet received a response or acknowledgment.
“We have asked Governor Noem to disclose what certain high-profile matters have cost South Dakota, specifically for her travel expenses and costs related to her involvement in her daughter’s real estate licensing,” said Sawyer. “South Dakota law requires disclosure of public spending and the public has a right to see how Governor Noem is spending their money.”
Tuesday’s lawsuit comes amid growing ethics concerns about the governor’s personal use of state resources. Government records released earlier this month suggest that Noem may have used a state-owned airplane to travel to a family wedding. Last November, American Oversight obtained records detailing Noem’s taxpayer-funded expenditures on furnishings for the governor’s mansion, including having spent more than $13,000 on 17 rugs.